Jenolan Caves

The Webb Family of Bathurst and Jenolan Caves

August 16, 2019

The Webb Building in Bathurst.

Writing one’s name on a cave wall, a popular memento of a 19th Century visit to Jenolan Caves is regarded as vandalism today – and rightly so! But those signatures continue to intrigue, for some tell a story beyond that goes beyond a day or two spent admiring those subterranean wonders. In the Flitch of Bacon cave, since 1923, is scratched the name 'Voss'. Did the young man responsible remember his handiwork when, as James Carvosso Wiburd, superintendent of Caves, he diplomatically dissuaded the future Empress of India, the Duchess of York, not to write her name in the cave, by saying “Ma'am, if you do that I shall have to take a long holiday”?

In a tiny alcove near the jawbone of a Tasmanian Devil, in the Imperial Cave, are two small names. These are of Edmund Webb and Catherine Webb, who were intimately connected with early cave exploration through their friendship with Jeremiah Wilson, 'The Crown Prince of Guides'.

It was Catherine, or Katie as she is more popularly known, that discovered the cave named after her, Katie's Bower , now the last stop on the Chifley cave tour.  The generally accepted story is that a party including Edmund Webb and his children made their way through what was then the left Imperial cave, by candlelight, until they came to a propitious decent into darkness. Katie pluckily went ahead down this narrow passageway, passing under a crystal formation dubbed the Mystery and into the cave soon to bear her name. The inscription ‘C Webb' near what is now called the Dragon's Head records her discovery. Katie went on to become one of the 'Cave Girls' an all-female group of intrepid cave explorers who defied Victorian conventions.

Did Katie’s father, Edmund Webb, defy convention too, in letting his daughter go caving and not sit at home doing needlework and waiting for a suitor? Certainly his record of public service and commercial success marked him as a man who led a life of achievement.

Originally a Cornishman, Edmund Webb arrived in New South Wales in 1847 aged 17, settling in Bathurst where he worked as a draper. Frugality paid off for him, and by November 1851 he was able to set up his own business. Three years later he married Selina Jane Jones, later naming the Selena cave after her.

By 1862, he had acquired his own building in the centre of Bathurst, the imposing  Webb Emporium, 169-181 George Street, opposite Machattie Park. The building was said to cover nearly two acres of ground.

In these days of online shopping department stores might be feeling the strain, but up until very recently they were the mainstay of commercial life, in every major town. Webb and Co. were no exception. Their clothes and shoes were sold all across the central west of NSW.

A Methodist and a Freemason, Edmund Webb involved himself in civic affairs from the 1860's, becoming a member of the first Bathurst Borough Council in 1863, then Mayor in 1866, with further office in 1868 and 1875 to 1877.  His obituary said that as Mayor of Bathurst “He was regarded as exactly the stamp of a man required to direct the affairs of a progressive borough”.  

Both Newington College in Stanmore and the Methodist Ladies College in Burwood benefited from his support, as well as the Bathurst Mechanics School of Arts, the Bathurst District Hospital, and the Bathurst Agricultural Horticultural and Pastoral Association.

Parallel to all of this, he still found time to become immersed in politics. He was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly as the member for West Macquarie from 1869 to 1874, then as the member for East Macquarie from 1878 to 1881.

Described somewhat uncharitably as a 'rabid Orangeman'  he none-the-less, along with Blue Mountains politician John Lucas, supported the push by Sir Henry Parkes to establish free, secular education and when offered the post of Colonial Treasurer, a position for which his business acumen would have served the state well, he declined “ he considered it impossible to hold a portfolio and have political independence of thought”.

His obituary in the National Advocate of the 26th June 1899 said, “ As the news became more widely known, it formed a genuine topic of sympathetic conversation, as Mr. Webb was one of  the pioneer captains of enterprise in the Western District and was known as a man of public spirit and generous impulse.”

So when today’s visitors explore Jenolan Caves, they follow in the footsteps of Edmond, Katie and Selena Webb, of Bathurst, people of enviable energy, in those pioneering days, who personified the spirit of enterprise, community, philanthropy – and adventure. The Chifley Cave, featuring Katie’s Bower, is open for guided tours every day.

After visiting Jenolan, Bathurst is a scenic hour’s drive, via Oberon. In Bathurst, you can view the old Webb Emporium building, before heading for the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum, home of the world famous Somerville Collection and the Albert Chapman Collection, on temporary exhibition from the Australian Museum. 

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4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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